by Jenny Tsiropoulou
The Russian, Maria Efimova, began working at Pilatus Bank in 2016, a bank that was founded in Malta by the 34-year old Iranian Ali Sadr in 2014. The banks clientele barely surpasses 150 people, but among them there are strong and opulent personalities such as the presidential family of Azerbaijan – a family that has held power for 25 years. Efimova’s studies and professional experience afforded her the knowledge to understand that the bank was walking a thin line between legality and illegality. As a result, she would frequently resist when her superiors demanded that she signs suspicious documents. Then, one morning, they cut her off completely, refusing to pay her 6,000 euro salary over the 3-month period that she had worked and instead accused her of embezzling 2,000 euros. The judicial battle that would follow was by no means an easy one.
Efimova felt encaged and lonely as threats were even directed at her own father who lived in a small Russian city. She asked for support. Her internet search lead her to the Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. The two ladies met and as a result, published reports that exposed the bank’s activities along with key clients like Michelle Mouskat, the wife of Maltese Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat. More specifically, the wife of the Prime Minister seemed to participate in an offshore business in Panama associated with Pilatus Bank to allow her money to move more easily. Daphne’s report was the official cause of snap elections in Malta, which Joseph Muscat, the leader of the Labor Party, unfortunately won. Malta is faithful to its polarized two-party system and Daphne was perceived as a “wicked witch” who wanted to tarnish the reputation of the Labor Party for the sake of their rivals, the right-wing Nationalistas.
Efimova sensed danger and felt that the two of them should seek refuge in another country. Daphne, however, did not make it. In October 2017, a bomb exploded in her car. Her son gathered her scattered body parts in order to bury her. Maria Efimova, along with her two children, found a safe house in her husband’s homeland of Greece.
For the first time ever, our country is called upon to judge whether a whistleblower will be extradited to another member-state within the European Union. On June 14th, the Supreme Court of Greece will decide whether or not she will be extradited to Malta with her own life on the line.
Efimova and I met in Crete a few days before the decision was to be announced. She told me the entire story as we sat by the sea; calmly, logically, humorously, courageously, and with great faith in God.
Maria, how old are you and where did you grow up?
I’ll be 36 in September. I was born and grew up in Russia in the city of Vladimir. As soon as I finished school, I worked for a year in Moscow. I then met my my husband and moved to Greece.
What did you study?
Creation of information systems for financial corporations.
Do you speak fluent Greek because you are married to a Greek?
Yes. I studied Greek and did my Master’s Degree at the School of Theology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. It was a Master’s in technological systems again. As soon as I finished my studies, we moved to Cyprus where I worked for a Russian bank. We later lived in Ireland where I worked for Google. We were not too fond of the Irish climate and culture so we moved to Malta in 2015 to satisfy our love of the Mediterranean. And that is where the adventure begins.
Three Unpaid Paychecks, an Abrupt Discharge From Work, and Suspicions of Money Laundering
You have become a whistleblower, a witness for the public interest. So before all of this, did you generally trust journalists?
I would always read the news and buy newspapers to keep up-to-date with the happenings around the world, but I never had any relationship with journalists in my life. My first experience was with Daphne in Malta.
In January of 2016 you got a job at Pilatus Bank. How does your story start that ultimately ended in litigation, threats, European arrest warrants, and the murder of Daphne, the journalist with whom you worked?
It’s a little complicated… I was working at the bank for three months and one day at the end of March, the director called me into his office and gave me a piece of paper that stated that I would be fired without any other explanation. He had the right to do it because I was still in the trial period of the job. They told me to leave immediately. When I started working at the bank in Malta, I had applied for a residence permit, but it had not yet been issued. The Ministry of Labor allowed me to work pending the result of my residence request because I was married to a European citizen. The bank had no problem with that. They clarified that as long as I did not have permission to be a resident, I could not be placed on the payroll. However, they would pay me immediately after I was granted the necessary residential permission. Of course, they told me that they knew some people in the system that would help me acquire the permit so I would not have to work unpaid. The day that I was fired, I asked them about my unpaid hours. They responded as such: “We’ll see, we’ll see.” I thought that I would receive some sort of compensation so I left quietly.
A week had passed and I had still not been paid. I called them and sent them emails. I received a response stating: “we are terribly sorry, but you have never actually worked at our bank. What you did was merely practice.” I, however, had a contract of employment signed by the director of the bank. I had all the documents and kept every email I sent. With such extensive study and experience, why would I accept a position at a bank in Malta with 100 to 150 customers just for practice? This all made a tremendous impression on me. I printed the emails, took the documents, and went to the authorities to file a complaint. They corresponded with my employer that I be paid, but the bank once again denied to do so and thus, the authorities recommended that we take legal action. I agreed. In the meantime, I had found another job and I did not dedicate as much time to the issue.
In August of 2016, the police came to my house and told me that I was under arrest. “For what reason?,” I asked. “Pilatus Bank filed a complaint against you regarding money embezzlement.” I was shocked. They told me to testify. The police were aggressive and told me that I was to blame, that I had stolen money. They pressured me to say I was guilty claiming otherwise that I would be sent to prison and never be released. I asked for an attorney. I said I was innocent and did not sign anything. A little later, they threw me in a cell. I was panicking. It was the first time I had ever been in a prison cell. I was then taken in for interrogation and to my surprise, two members of the bank were sitting in front of me. I complained, but the police responded with “Are you going to tell us how to do our job?” At that moment, I stopped being afraid and became furious. I asked for a Russian-to-English interpreter so that I could give my testimony. I also asked that the Russian embassy be notified of my case.
Now we arrive at my deposition. The members of the bank had left and I decided to speak for the first time about what I had seen at the bank. I told the police, “I believe that I was fired because there were incidences of money laundering within the bank and I thus refused to sign fake documents.” The court proceedings soon began: the bank against me for embezzlement and me against the bank for unpaid work.
Fake Signatures, Mysterious Money, and Copies
Why would a bank with wealthy customers refuse to pay its employee three paychecks until it was no longer associated with her?
This tortured my own mind. I thought, if I were Ali Sadr (owner of Pilatus Bank), why would I do all of this to an employee over three paychecks? I don’t think it was about the money. It was a matter of pressure and a demonstration of power since I told them that I would go to the authorities if they forced me to falsify signatures. They wanted to scare me. Sadr would either feel very powerful or simply stupid.
What exactly did you see going on at the bank?
Due to my experience and my studies, I had sufficient knowledge about money laundering. I had seen that we were opening accounts with certain companies and in one of the two instances, the ultimate beneficial owner was some political entity (PEPs), usually from Azerbaijan. The law did not forbid this, but you need to find out where the money was coming from to make sure that it was not coming from illegal activities or corrupt origins. They told us that the money was coming from restaurants in France, for example, and we filled out a simple form without checking their revenue or anything for that matter. I wondered why my co-workers did not react to all this and thus, I started to ask them where they had worked previously. Most of them were from Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. One worked at a restaurant, another was a secretary; therefore, they had no clue about all that we did. One of our clients sent one million to Dubai and I asked where the necessary supporting documents were and they answered: “Isn’t that why we have you here? You make them yourself.” I refused, but somebody else ultimately arranged them.
And in the meantime, were you collecting evidence?
In the beginning, I only observed my surroundings with extreme care and was careful as to where I would sign my signature. One day the Financial Intelligence Unit came to check on what was going on. They asked for the customers’ files, supporting documents, etc. The office went into a slight craze. The CEO called for me and told me: “Stamps are missing on files and supporting documents from 2015. Go and take care of that quickly. It’s your job.” I answered him noting that I did not even work at the bank in 2015, thus it surely was not my job. He called me useless and said that I would be to blame if anything went wrong. He then proceeded to throw me out of his office. I left, but I thought that perhaps they could collect fake signatures and then blame me. I panicked and started to make copies of the files so that I would have conclusive evidence. I never intended to blackmail the bank. I only wanted, if necessary, to be able to defend myself.
Administrative offices of the Labor Party in the capital city of Valletta. Pictured at top is 44-year old Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat. Jenny Tsiropoulou/ThePressProject
“My mother died and they would not allow me to travel to attend the funeral. I finally lost it and decided that was the last straw.”
How does all of this get turned upside down as you decided to find Galizia, the investigative journalist, to speak to her about the money laundering, but also the offshore activity of the Prime Minister of Malta’s wife?
At the end of 2016, my mother died. I asked for a 2-day permit from the court to travel to Russia for her funeral. They refused and I lost it. That’s when I decided that was the last straw. I felt the need to find somebody to help me because by myself, a foreigner in a foreign country, I would not be able to do it with all that was going on with the bank. I even discovered that the lawyers that I hired – since Malta is a very small place and everybody are acquaintances and family of politicians etc. – were ultimately working against me. I went through 5 lawyers. I started searching online and found 2 of Daphne’s articles about the bank and its relationship with Maltese politicians. I understood the coverage that the bank enjoyed well and why they could do what they wanted. I wrote to Daphne, but did not get a response after four months. She resurfaced in February of 2017 and apologized stating that my email had gone straight to her spam. She asked if we could meet up. Daphne knew quite a lot about the offshore incident and the money laundering as she was already searching for sources. I asked her about the importance of all of this directly and she told me that she simply wanted the truth to come out.
“I requested to testify anonymously. The next day, my name, my spouse’s name, where we lived, where we worked, everything was in the newspapers.”
The examples of other whistleblowers around the globe are discouraging regarding the life that awaited them after their discoveries and after they were no longer the center of attention: Julian Assange has been confined in the Ecuadorian embassy of London for five years. Edward Snowden, exiled from his home country, had to start a completely new life in your homeland, Russia. Did these examples not deter your decision?
When I met with Daphne, I did not know where this story would go. She told me that she would not write my name anywhere and she kept her promise. The moment that I decided to formally participate in the story was when Daphne accused the Maltese Prime Minister’s wife of taking part in Egrant, an offshore company in Panama. The Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, demanded that there be evidence and thus, Daphne was called upon to testify as the journalist that had provoked the scandal. They asked who her sources were and she responded that they were anonymous. I was online the whole day reading the developments. I understood that if I did not speak, they would take Daphne as a madwoman who simply wanted to damage the Prime Minister’s reputation. I could not let that happen to her. I showed up to testify. It lasted four hours. I answered everything. They asked me if I wanted to testify anonymously. I said I did. The next day, I read the news and suddenly I saw my name all over the newspapers. My name, my husband’s name, where we lived, where we worked. Everything was published. I was “the thief that dared to make accusations against the Prime Minister of Malta” and “the Russian spy.”
Did you find out what exactly had happened?
The judge’s assistant, the woman to whom I testified, was associated with the Labor Party, the party of the Prime Minister. She was the one that gave my name to the Press. I learned that they fired her after that happened, but for me, it was already too late. It was dawning on the first of May of 2017. The Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, called for emergency elections due to the scandal with his wife and the offshore incident. He wanted to assure that he would remain in power and the people actually supported him. He won again. It was said that he appointed many public servants and he gave interest-free loans to the people before the election. Even if you win the election, however, that does not erase any corruption or illegal activity that you committed.
When did you decide to flee Malta with your family?
In June of 2017, my phone rang. It was my father, who lives in a small Russian city: “Maria, two men just came to the house and told me to control my daughter.” They were two private Russian detectives. My father did not know anything about what was going on until then. I did not want to worry him since my mother had just recently died. The detectives went to the neighbors and asked about me. I found out who they were, I called them and they told me: “We are also doing our job. A detective office in Moscow sent us out here.” In Russia, if you have friends, you can do a lot of things and that’s how I found out who the detectives were in Moscow. They in turn retorted, informally of course, that a politician from Malta’s Labor Party had sent them here. If they managed to reach my dad in Russia, imagine what they could do to me – so close to them in a country in which bombs explode every now and again. I told my husband that we needed to leave Malta now.
Did your husband support your choices?
My husband is generally anxious. You know how Greek men are, calmness is not their forte (laughter). We discussed everything because we are a family with two kids, but he agreed with all that I did. In September of 2017, our journey led us to Crete. I thought that the entire story would be forgotten there. Our life moved along calmly until I found out that Daphne was murdered.
A memorial for the slain journalist. Valletta, Malta. May 2018.
Daphne’s Murder, the Warrants, Korydallos Prison, and the Appeal
How did you feel that day?
I read about the murder on a Russian site and I thought that it was fake news. I started looking at the Maltese media to see if it was true. I was crushed. I was in complete disbelief. My first thought was that I should have never spoken to her. I wondered if her death was all my fault. A few days later, I read that there were European arrest warrants out for me. I was shocked once again. I went to the Cretan police immediately and they told me that such warrants against me did not exist. In March of 2018, I was in Athens and decided to check again. The police in Athens told me that there were warrants out for my arrest due to accusations by the bank and that Greece should extradite me to Malta. I surrendered immediately. The district attorney asked me if I would accept to be extradited to Malta. I did not. I was thrown in jail for a few days in Korydallos prison and then sent to Thiva. It was no five-star hotel, but what are you going to do? (laughter). On April 12th, the Athens Court of Appeals decided that Greece would not extradite me to Malta.
What was the reason for this decision?
The decision was 100 pages long, but the basic argument was that the arrest warrants were fashioned incorrectly. Also, the decision admitted that it was dangerous for me to be extradited to Malta. Two European parliamentarians strongly supported me as witnesses, Mr. Stelios Kouloglou and the European parliamentarian of Malta, David Casa.
The Court of Appeals decided not to extradite you, but there is an appeal against this decision. In a few days, on June 14th*, the final decision concerning your extradition is due from the Supreme Court.
My attorney has warned me that an appeal can be made and to tell you the truth, I expected it. Since it concerns two States within the European Union, perhaps they wanted to demonstrate that they will examine the situation further, that they are not simply going against Malta. I think that the decision will be in my favor as long as there are no political negotiations under the table. It is potentially a big issue since the Prime Minister of Malta is obviously entangled in politics. You just never know. Whatever will be will be. I’m not afraid.
“I am in danger and I am not that confident that there will be a fair trial.” Will Greece ultimately extradite Maria Efimova to Malta?
Do you believe in a fair trial if you are extradited to Malta?
From everything that I have seen now, no.
When I met Daphne’s sister in Malta, she told me that they wanted a murder that would serve as a spectacle and an example to other journalists. You are the second witness and the only one who experienced it first-hand. It would seem logical to me that you would fear for your own life.
I was afraid before Daphne’s murder. When she was alive, I would tell her that she needed to leave Malta. I felt that we were in danger. You won’t believe it but she told me, “Come on, what are they going to do? Are they going to blow my car up?” Well, they did. As soon as I found out that they killed her, I felt horrible that I did not further insist that she leave. On the other hand, we were not friends. She was older than I was and a local. She knew more than I did. I could not pressure her.
You have said that you feel safe in Greece. Haven’t you ever received any threats while you were here?
I feel safe because Greece does not have any personal interest in this case from what I know. And since my husband is Greek and our children have Greek citizenship, I believe that the Court should take into account that if they extradite me to Malta, they will leave two young children without a mother.
Until a week ago, everything was quiet. But about a week ago, something weird happened. Every morning at the same time, I go for a run on the beach. I found myself in a secluded place without shops when somebody ran next to me and told me in Turkish: “Since you know, you will pay, you will die.” I was panicked beyond belief. I speak Turkish, but not many people know that. They knew I spoke Turkish at the bank because I spoke with Turkish suppliers. I looked to see if the man had a knife or gun on him and when I saw that he did not, I started running backwards towards a crowd of people. It was a thriller. I came back home to see if my family was okay, took a sleeping pill, and slept. Afterwards, I managed to tell my husband. I went to the police to file a complaint just in case something happened.
Are you not under some sort of protection?
No and I never tried to be. I would not want to live with police officers always around us, but to be honest, I do not think that they would give me such protection.
“I could not bow to the bank. I would do it again. Otherwise, what would I tell myself and my children?”
You have a son and a daughter ages 11 and 9. Do they understand what is going on?
They do not know the whole story, but I recently told them some of the facts. When I was in jail, some parents and professors at school found out about the ordeal and I did not want the kids to hear something out of the blue that may not have been entirely true. I told them because they need to be careful and not speak to people they do not know.
How did they react?
They were excited (laughter). They said that they would now be spies and that we would need to buy uniforms. The kids are funny. I told them to not be scared, make sure they told me everything, and, above all, be careful.
From personal experience, what are the laws like regarding whistleblowers?
I don’t know what they are like in Greece because my case does not relate to Greece directly. In Malta, the Whistleblower Act protects you in theory, but reality is a completely different beast.
An improved and more robust European law regarding witnesses of public interest has however been discussed in the European Parliament.
Yes, it has and it is very important because it will help other people reveal dire information that they know.
Did Pilatus Bank suffer any consequences?
The founder, Ali Sadr, was arrested in America charged with illegally sending $115 million to Iran despite the sanctions. His arrest, however, was unrelated to my case. Regarding my own case, the bank is now under the control of the State and its transactions are limited while the money laundering scandal is still being examined.
Do you ever regret what you did? Would you do it again?
In Russia we have saying: “He who attacks us with his sword will consequently die by it.” In other words, the best offense is a strong defense. Even though they have money, they can’t do whatever they want. They have to pay. I considered the danger that I put my family in, but I could not bow to the wishes of the bank and simply say that I would do whatever they wanted as long as they left me be. What would I tell myself? How could I live with myself? If it happened again, I would do the exact same thing. My parents taught me not to hide, but to respond if somebody wrongs me. That’s exactly how I teach my own children.
Unemployment, Humor, and God
If everything goes well, will you stay in Greece? Are you and your husband currently employed?
Yes, we will stay because the kids are still in school. I lost my job because my employer in Malta worried that he would have problems if he kept me. I don’t blame him. I now work a little bit as an on-call substitute worker at hotels. With everything that has happened, my husband is in no place to work psychologically due to his anxiety. We are asking relatives for some extra help. It’s tiring and difficult. Fortunately, we both have a sense of humor so we do not go absolutely crazy. It’s been hard for me to continually ask for help from other people. It’s just not who I am.
I see that you are wearing a cross. Do you believe in God?
Of course I do. I am by no means a saint, but since I played some role in this whole ordeal, I believe that it was God’s will that all of this happened.
Thank you so much Maria, and I hope that everything goes well for you.
Thank you. Everything will turn out just fine. Why wouldn’t it?
*Update: On June 14th, the Supreme Civil and Criminal Court of Greece decided that Maria Efimova would not be extradited to Malta. This is a landmark decision because, for the first time, the Greek court system was called upon to determine whether or not to extradite a whistleblower.
Translated by Billy Fuerst.